Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

Their Just Deserts: The Mega WTA Indian Wells Draw Preview

Read about what to expect from the first Premier Mandatory tournament of 2013 as we break down each quarter of the WTA Indian Wells draw in detail!

First quarter:  For the second straight year, Azarenka arrives in the desert with a perfect season record that includes titles at the Australian Open and the Premier Five tournament in Doha.  Able to defend those achievements, she eyes another prestigious defense at Indian Wells on a surface that suits her balanced hybrid of offense and defense as well as any other.  In her opener, she could face the only woman in the draw who has won multiple titles here, Daniela Hantuchova, although the more recent of her pair came six long years ago.  Since reaching the second week of the Australian Open, Kirsten Flipkens staggered to disappointing results in February, so Azarenka need not expect too stern a test from the Belgian.  Of perhaps greater concern is a rematch of her controversial Melbourne semifinal against Sloane Stephens, who aims to bounce back from an injury-hampered span with the encouragement of her home crowd.  Heavy fan support for the opponent can fluster Azarenka, or it can bring out her most ferocious tennis, which makes that match one to watch either way.  Of some local interest is the first-round match between Jamie Hampton, who won a set from Vika in Melbourne, and Kuala Lumpur runner-up Mattek-Sands.

The most intriguing first-round match in the lower section of this quarter pits Laura Robson against the blistering backhands of Sofia Arvidsson.  In fact, plenty of imposing two-handers highlight that neighborhood with those of Julia Goerges and the tenth-seeded Petrova also set to shine.  The slow courts of Indian Wells might not suit games so high on risk and low on consistency, possibly lightening the burden on former champion Wozniacki.  Just two years ago, the Dane won this title as the world #1, and she reached the final in 2010 with her characteristic counterpunching.  Downed relatively early in her title defense last year, she has shown recent signs of regrouping with strong performances at the Persian Gulf tournaments in February.  On the other hand, a quick loss as the top seed in Kuala Lumpur reminded viewers that her revival remains a work in progress.  She has not faced Azarenka since the latter’s breakthrough in mid-2011, so a quarterfinal between them would offer fascinating evidence as to whether Caro can preserve her mental edge over her friend.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:  Unremarkable so far this year, Kerber has fallen short of the form that carried her to a 2012 semifinal here and brings a three-match losing streak to the desert.  Even with that recent history, she should survive early tests from opponents like Heather Watson and the flaky Wickmayer before one of two fellow lefties poses an intriguing challenge in the fourth round.  For the second straight year, Makarova reached the Australian Open quarterfinals, and her most significant victory there came against Kerber in a tightly contested match of high quality.  Dogged by erratic results, this Russian may find this surface too slow for her patience despite the improved defense and more balanced weapons that she showed in Melbourne.  Another woman who reached the second week there, Bojana Jovanovski, hopes to prove that accomplishment more than just a quirk of fate, which it seems so far.  Also in this section is the enigmatic Safarova, a woman of prodigious talent but few results to show for it.  If she meets Makarova in the third round, an unpredictable clash could ensue, after which the winner would need to break down Kerber’s counterpunching.

Stirring to life in Doha and Dubai, where she reached the quarterfinals at both, Stosur has played much further below her ranking this year than has Kerber.  A disastrous Australian season and Fed Cup weekend have started to fade a bit, however, for a woman who has reached the Indian Wells semifinals before.  Stosur will welcome the extra time that the court gives her to hit as many forehands as possible, but she may not welcome a draw riddled with early threats.  At the outset, the US Open champion could face American phenom Madison Keys, who raised eyebrows when she charged within a tiebreak of the semifinals in a strong Sydney draw.  The feisty Peng, a quarterfinalist here in 2011, also does not flinch when facing higher-ranked opponents, so Stosur may breathe a sigh of relief if she reaches the fourth round.  Either of her likely opponents there shares her strengths of powerful serves and forehands as well as her limitations in mobility and consistency.  Losing her only previous meeting with Mona Barthel, on the Stuttgart indoor clay, Ivanovic will seek to reverse that result at a tournament where she usually has found her most convincing tennis even in her less productive periods.  Minor injuries have nagged her lately, while Barthel has reached two finals already in 2013 (winning one), so this match could prove compelling if both silence other powerful servers around them, like Lucie Hradecka.

Semifinalist:  Ivanovic

Third quarter:  Another woman who has reached two finals this year (winning both), the third-seeded Radwanska eyes perhaps the easiest route of the elite contenders.  Barring her path to the fourth round are only a handful of qualifiers, an anonymous American wildcard, an aging clay specialist who has not won a match all year, and the perenially underachieving Sorana Cirstea.  Radwanska excels at causing raw, error-prone sluggers like Cirstea to implode, and she will face nobody with the sustained power and accuracy to overcome her in the next round either.  In that section, Christina McHale attempts to continue a comeback from mono that left her without a victory for several months until a recent breakthrough, and Maria Kirilenko marks her return from injury that sidelined her after winning the Pattaya City title.  Although she took Radwanska deep into the final set of a Wimbledon quarterfinal last year, and defeated her at a US Open, the Russian should struggle if rusty against the more confident Aga who has emerged since late 2011.  Can two grass specialists, Pironkova and Paszek, cause a stir in this quiet section?

Not much more intimidating is the route that lies before the section’s second highest-ranked seed, newly minted Dubai champion Kvitova.  Although she never has left a mark on either Indian Wells or Miami, Kvitova suggested that she had ended her habitual struggles in North America by winning the US Open Series last summer with titles in Montreal and New Haven.  Able to enter and stay in torrid mode like the flip of a switch, she aims to build on her momentum from consecutive victories over three top-ten opponents there.  The nearest seeded opponent to Kvitova, Yaroslava Shvedova, has struggled to string together victories since her near-upset of Serena at Wimbledon, although she nearly toppled Kvitova in their most recent meeting at Roland Garros.  Almost upsetting Azarenka near this time a year ago, Cibulkova looks to repeat her upset over the Czech in Sydney when they meet in the fourth round.  Just reaching that stage would mark a step forward for her, though, considering her failure to build upon her runner-up appearance there and the presence of ultra-steady Zakopalova.  Having dominated Radwanska so thoroughly in Dubai, Kvitova should feel confident about that test.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Fourth quarter:  Semifinalist in 2011, finalist in 2012, champion in 2013?  Before she can think so far ahead, the second-seeded Sharapova must maneuver past a string of veteran Italians and other clay specialists like Suarez Navarro.  Aligned to meet in the first round are the former Fed Cup teammates Pennetta and Schiavone in one of Wednesday’s most compelling matches, but the winner vanishes directly into Sharapova’s jaws just afterwards.  The faltering Varvara Lepchenko could meet the surging Roberta Vinci, who just reached the semifinals in Dubai with victories over Kuznetsova, Kerber, and Stosur.  Like Kvitova, then, she brings plenty of positive energy to a weak section of the draw, where her subtlety could carry her past the erratic or fading players around her.  But Sharapova crushed Vinci at this time last year, and she never has found even a flicker of self-belief against the Russian.

Once notorious for the catfights that flared between them, Jankovic and Bartoli could extend their bitter rivalry in the third round at a tournament where both have reached the final (Jankovic winning in 2010, Bartoli falling to Wozniacki a year later).  Between them stands perhaps a more convincing dark horse candidate in Kuznetsova, not far removed from an Australian Open quarterfinal appearance that signaled her revival.  Suddenly striking the ball with confidence and even—gasp—a modicum of thoughtfulness, she could draw strength from the memories of her consecutive Indian Wells finals in 2007-08.  If Kuznetsova remains young enough to recapture some of her former prowess, her compatriot Pavlyuchenkova also has plenty of time to rebuild a career that has lain in ruins for over a year.  By playing close to her potential, she could threaten Errani despite the sixth seed’s recent clay title defense in Acapulco.  Not in a long time has anyone in this area challenged Sharapova, though.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Come back tomorrow before the start of play in the men’s draw to read a similar breakdown!

What to Watch in the WTA This Week: Previews of Acapulco, Florianopolis, and Kuala Lumpur

While eight of the top ten men are active in the week before Indian Wells, only two of the top ten women have chosen live matches over practice sessions.  Two clay tournaments in the Western Hemisphere accompany an Asian hard-court tournament as the last chance to reverse or extend momentum before the March mini-majors.

Acapulco:  One of those two top-ten women playing this week, Errani hopes to begin repeating last year’s success on red clay while extending her success from reaching the Dubai final.  Little about her section suggests that she should not, although she stumbled unexpectedly on clay against Lepchenko in Fed Cup.  Considering that mishap, she might find Arantxa Rus a worthy test in the quarterfinals.  Rus once upset Clijsters at Roland Garros and owns a lefty forehand smothered with topspin that cause damage on this surface.  She might struggle to survive an all-Dutch encounter in the opening round against Kiki Bertens, though, who broke through to win her first career title at a clay tournament in Morocoo last year.

Gone early in Bogota, where she held the second seed, Alize Cornet will hope for a more productive week in a draw where she holds the third seed.  The Frenchwoman lacks weapons to overpower her opponents but will find few in this section who can overpower her.  The most notable name here (probably more notable than Cornet) belongs to the returning Flavia Pennetta, who got through one three-setter in Bogota before fading in a second.  Tiny Lourdes Dominguez Lino hopes that this first-round opponent still needs to shake off more rust.

An odd sight it is to see an American, a Croat, and a Swede all playing on clay during a week with a hard-court tournament, and yet all of them occupy the same section in Acapulco.  Perhaps more notable than Glatch or Larsson is Ajla Tomljanovic, a heavy hitter from a nation of heavy hitters who once looked like a sure rising star before recent setbacks.  Facing this Croatian wildcard in the first round, fourth seed Irina-Camelia Begu knows better how to play on clay, as 2011 finals in Marbella and Budapest showed.  Begu won her first career title last fall in Tashkent, which places her a notch above the other seed in this quarter.  Spending most of her career at the ITF level, Romina Oprandi recorded a strong result in Beijing last fall.

Handed a wildcard to accompany her sixth seed, Schiavone searches for relevance after a long stretch in which she has struggled to string together victories.  The sporadically intriguing Sesil Karatantcheva should pose a test less stern than second seed Suarez Navarro, who shares Schiavone’s affinity for the surface.  Humiliated twice in one week at Dubai, where she lost resoundingly in both the singles and the doubles draws, the small Spaniard owns one of the loveliest one-handed backhands in the WTA since Henin’s retirement.  Schiavone owns another, which should make their quarterfinal pleasant viewing for tennis purists.

Final:  Errani vs. Begu

Florianopolis:  In the first year of a new tournament, the presence of a marquee player always helps to establish its legitimacy.  The outdoor hard courts at this Brazilian resort will welcome seven-time major champion and former #1 Venus Williams as the top seed, and her draw looks accommodating in its early stages.  While young Spaniard Garbine Muguruza showed potential at the Australian Open, the American’s sternest challenge may come from a much older woman.  Extending Venus deep into a third set at Wimbledon in 2011, Kimiko Date-Krumm could unsettle her fellow veteran with her clever angles and crisp net play, although her serve should fall prey to her opponent’s returning power.

In the quarter below lies Kirsten Flipkens, who lost early as the top seed in Memphis after reaching the second week of the Australian Open.  Also a potential semifinal opponent for Venus, Caroline Garcia possesses much more potential than her current ranking of #165 would suggest.  Unlike most of the counterpunchers in Florianopolis, she will not flinch from trading baseline missiles with the top seed should she earn the opportunity.  Another young star in the eighth-seeded Annika Beck might produce an intriguing quarterfinal with Garcia.

Counterpunchers dominate the third quarter, bookended by Medina Garrigues and Chanelle Scheepers.  When the two met at the Hopman Cup this year, endless rallies and endless service games characterized a match filled with breaks.  The heavy serve of Timea Babos might intercept Scheepers in the second round, while Medina Garrigues could encounter some early resistance from the quirky Niculescu or Shahar Peer.  With her best years well behind her, the Israeli continues to show her familiar grittiness in attempting to reclaim her relevance.

Midway through 2012, the second-seeded Shvedova climbed back into singles prominence by reaching the second week at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon.  Starting with her three-set loss to Serena at the latter major, she has suffered a series of demoralizing setbacks in early rounds since then, often in tightly contested matches that hinged on a handful of points.  Shvedova once led the WTA’s rankings for overall pace of shot, though, and her power might overwhelm those around her.  Aligned to meet her in the quarterfinals is Kristina Mladenovic, the surprise semifinalist at the Paris Indoors who delivered the first signature win of her career there over Kvitova.

Final:  Williams vs. Mladenovic

Kuala Lumpur:  With a direct-entry cutoff even lower than Florianopolis, this tournament features only eight players in the top 100.  Headlining the list, however, is a former #1 who still occupies the fringes of the top 10.  After she produced solid results in the Middle East, reaching a quarterfinal in Doha and a semifinal in Dubai, Wozniacki should feel confident in her ability to secure a first title of 2013.  Few of the names in her quarter will strike chords with most fans, although some might remember lefty Misaki Doi as the woman who upset Petra Martic in Melbourne before eating a Sharapova double bagel.  Aussie lefty Casey Dellacqua sometimes can challenge higher-ranked foes but has struggled with injury too often to maintain consistency.

Doi’s highest-ranked compatriot, the double-fister Ayumi Morita holds the fourth seed in Kuala Lumpur.  Like Wozniacki, she could face an Aussie in the quarterfinals, and, like Wozniacki, she should not find the test too severe.  Although she has won the Australian Open wildcard playoff twice, Olivia Rogowska has stagnated over the past few years since winning a set from then -#1 Safina at the US Open.  Evergreen veteran Eleni Daniilidou rounds out this section with one of the WTA’s more powerful one-handed backhands—and not much else.

Surely pleased to recruit another player of international familiarity beyond Wozniacki, Kuala Lumpur welcomes Pavlyuchenkova as a third-seeded wildcard entrant.  The Russian often has excelled at this time of year, reaching the Indian Wells semifinals before and winning consecutive titles at the Monterrey tournament that has shifted after Miami.  This year, Pavlyuchenkova has shown a little of her promising 2011 form by reaching the final in Brisbane to start the season and much more of her dismal 2012 form by dropping three straight matches thereafter.  She could end her four-match losing streak here in a section filled with qualifiers.  But yet another Aussie in Ashleigh Barty hopes to continue what so far has become an encouraging season for WTA future stars.

When not conversing on Twitter with our colleague David Kane, 16-year-old phenom Donna Vekic has compiled some notable results.  Seeded at a WTA tournament for the first time, she will look to build upon her final in Tashkent last year, a win over Hlavackova at the Australian Open, and a solid week in Fed Cup zonal play.  Vekic does face a challenging first-round test in the powerful serve of American wildcard Bethanie Mattek-Sands, but no match in her section looks unwinnable.  While second seed and potential quarterfinal opponent Hsieh Su-wei won her first two titles last year, the late-blossoming star from Chinese Taipei still does not intimidate despite her presence in the top 25.

Final:  Wozniacki vs. Pavlyuchenkova

(Actually, can we just combine these last two draws and have Venus play a super-final against Caro?)

 

 

What to Watch in the WTA This Week: Previews of Dubai, Memphis, and Bogota

Shifting down the Persian Gulf, eight of the top ten women move from Doha to Dubai for the only Premier tournament this week.  In North and South America are two International tournaments on dramatically different surfaces.  Here is the weekly look at what to expect in the WTA.

Dubai:  Still the top seed despite her dethroning last week, Azarenka can collect valuable rankings points at a tournament from which she withdrew in 2012.  She looked far sharper in Doha than she did for most of her title run in Melbourne, and once again she eyes a potential quarterfinal with Sara Errani.  Although the Italian has rebounded well from a disastrous start to the season, she lacks any weapons with which to threaten Azarenka.  Between them stands last year’s runner-up Julia Goerges, an enigma who seems destined to remain so despite her first-strike potential.   If Sloane Stephens can upset Errani in the second round, meanwhile, a rematch of the Australian Open semifinal could loom in the quarterfinals.  The top seed might expect a test from Cibulkova in the second round, since she lost to her at Roland Garros last year and needed a miraculous comeback to escape her in Miami.  But Cibulkova injured her leg in Fed Cup a week ago and has faltered since reaching the Sydney final.

Having won just one match until Doha, Stosur bounced back somewhat by recording consecutive wins in that Premier Five field.  The Aussie may face three straight lefties in Makarova, Lepchenko, and Kerber, the last of whom has the greatest reputation but the least momentum.  While Makarova reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, Lepchenko displayed her newfound confidence in upsetting both Errani and Vinci on clay in Fed Cup—a rare feat for an American.  Vinci herself also stands in this section, from which someone unexpected could emerge.  Azarenka need fear little from either Kerber or Stosur, both of whom she has defeated routinely in most of their previous meetings, so a semifinal anticlimax might beckon.  Not that Doha didn’t produce a semifinal anticlimax from much more prestigious names.

Atop the third quarter stands the greatest enigma of all in Petra Kvitova, who won four straight matches between Fed Cup and Doha before nearly halting Serena’s bid for the #1 ranking.  Considering how far she had sunk over the previous several months, unable to string together consecutive victories, that accomplishment marked an immense step forward.  Kvitova can capitalize immediately on a similar surface in the section occupied by defending champion Radwanska.  In contrast to last week, the Czech can outhit anyone whom she could face before the semifinals, so she will determine her own fate.  If she implodes, however, Ivanovic could repeat her upset when they met in last year’s Fed Cup final before colliding with Radwanska for the third time this year.  Also of note in this section is the all-wildcard meeting between rising stars Putintseva and Robson.

Breaking with her usual routine, Serena has committed to the Middle East hard courts without reserve by entering both Doha and Dubai.  Whether she plays the latter event in a physical condition that looks less than promising may remain open to question until she takes the court.  So strong is the draw that Serena could open against world #11 Bartoli, who owns a Wimbledon victory against her from 2011 but has not sustained that success.  The eighth-seeded Wozniacki proved a small thorn in her side last year by defeating her in Miami and threatening her in Rome, so a quarterfinal could intrigue if the Dane can survive Safarova to get there and if Serena arrives at less than full strength.

Final:  Azarenka vs. Kvitova

Memphis:  Overshadowed a little by the accompanying ATP 500 tournament, this event has lacked star power for the last few years.  Rather than Venus, Sharapova, or Davenport, the top seed in 2013 goes to Kirsten Flipkens, a player largely unknown in the United States.  This disciple of Clijsters may deserve more attention than she has received, however, rallying to reach the second week of the Australian Open in January after surviving blood clots last spring.  Former finalist Shahar Peer and 2011 champion Magdalena Rybarikova attempt to resurrect their careers by returning to the scene of past triumphs, but lefty Ksenia Pervak may offer the most credible challenge to Flipkens in this quarter.

Of greater note is the hard-serving German who holds the third seed and should thrive on a fast indoor court.  Although Lisicki has struggled to find her form away from grass, she showed flickers of life by charging within a tiebreak of the Pattaya City title earlier this month.  Kristina Mladenovic, a potential quarterfinal opponent, delivered a key statement in the same week at the Paris Indoors, where she upset Kvitova en route to the semifinals.  Before then, though, this French teenager had displayed little hint of such promise, so one feels inclined to attribute that result more to the Czech’s frailty for now.

Part of an elite doubles team with compatriot Andrea Hlavackova, Lucie Hradecka has excelled on surfaces where her powerful serve can shine.  Like Lisicki, she should enjoy her week in Memphis amid a section of opponents who cannot outhit her from the baseline.  Among them is the largely irrelevant Melanie Oudin, who surfaced last year to win her first career title before receding into anonymity again.  Neither Oudin nor the fourth-seeded Heather Watson possesses significant first-strike power, so their counterpunching will leave them at a disadvantage on the indoor hard court.  But Watson has improved her offense (together with her ranking) over the last few months and should relish the chance to take advantage of a friendly draw.  Interestingly, Hradecka’s doubles partner Hlavackova could meet her in the quarterfinals if she can upset Watson.

Finishing runner-up to Sharapova here in 2010, Sofia Arvidsson holds the second seed in this yaer’s tournament as she eyes a potential quarterfinal against one of two Americans.  While Chanelle Scheepers anchors the other side of the section, Jamie Hampton could build upon her impressive effort against Azarenka at the Australian Open to shine on home soil.  Nor should one discount the massive serve of Coco Vandeweghe, which could compensate for her one-dimensionality here.

Final:  Lisicki vs. Hradecka

Bogota:  Like the ATP South American tournaments in February, this event offers clay specialists an opportunity to compile ranking points in a relatively unintimidating setting.  Top seed and former #1 Jankovic fits that category, having reached multiple semifinals at Roland Garros during her peak years.  She has not won a title in nearly three years, but a breakthrough could happen here.  In her section stand Pauline Parmentier and Mariana Duque Marino, the latter of whom stunned Bogota audiences by winning the 2010 title here over Kerber.  As her wildcard hints, she never quite vaulted from that triumph to anything more significant.  Serious opposition to Jankovic might not arise until the semifinals, when she faces the aging Pennetta.  Once a key part of her nation’s Fed Cup achievements, the Italian veteran won their most recent clay meeting and looks likely to ensure a rematch with nobody more notable than the tiny Dominguez Lino blocking her.

The lower half of the draw features a former Roland Garros champion in Schiavone and a French prodigy who nearly broke through several years ago before stagnating in Cornet.  Testing the latter in a potential quarterfinal is Timea Babos, who won her first career title around this time last year with a promising serve.  For Schiavone, the greatest resistance could come from lanky Dutch lefty Arantxa Rus.  Known most for her success on clay, Rus won a match there from Clijsters and a set from Sharapova, exploiting the extra time that the surface allows for her sluggish footwork.  Also of note in this half is Paula Ormaechea, a rising Argentine who probably ranks as the most notable women’s star expected from South America in the next generation.  Can she step into Dulko’s shoes?

Final:  Jankovic vs. Schiavone

Check back shortly for the companion preview on the three ATP tournaments this week in Marseille, Memphis, and Buenos Aires!

 

Fill Their Cups: Fed Cup World Group Quarterfinal Preview

One week after the 2013 Davis Cup began, Fed Cup starts with four ties hosted by European nations.  We look ahead to what viewers can expect from the women’s national team competition.  Having gone 7-1 in Davis Cup predictions, will our hot streak continue?

Czech Republic vs. Australia:  The first of the ties features the only two members of the top ten playing a Fed Cup World Group tie this weekend.  But they also are the two most abjectly slumping women in that elite group, having slumped to equally deflating second-round exits at the Australian Open after imploding at tournaments earlier in January.  The defending champions hold a key trump card if the match reaches a decisive fifth rubber, where their experienced doubles duo of Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova should stifle whatever pair the Australians can compile.  An ideally balanced team with two top-20 singles threats and a top-5 doubles team, the Czechs thus need earn only a split in singles, while the Aussies must get a victory from Dellacqua, Gajdosova, or Barty.  Even in that scenario, they would need Stosur to sweep her singles rubbers, not as plausible a feat as it sounds considering her habit of embarrassing herself with national pride on the line.  The boisterous Czech crowd might lift Kvitova’s spirits, similar to last year’s final when she eked out a victory as Safarova donned the heroine’s garb.  But she too has struggled early this year, leaving the stage set for a rollercoaster weekend.

Pick:  Czech Republic

Italy vs. USA:   To paraphrase the producers who initially turned down the musical Oklahoma:  no Williams, no Stephens, no chance.  Like that show, which became a smash hit on Broadway, this American Fed Cup team has exceeded expectations in recent years when understaffed.  Singles #1 Varvara Lepchenko enjoyed her breakthrough season in 2012, edging within range of the top 20, and Jamie Hampton announced herself with a three-set tussle against eventual champion Azarenka at the Australian Open.  Hampered by a back injury in Melbourne, Hampton likely will trump the inconsistent Melanie Oudin after she showed how much her groundstrokes and point construction skills had improved.  That said, Oudin has compiled plenty of Fed Cup experience, and her feisty attitude that so often thrives in this setting.  Doubles specialist Liezel Huber, although past her prime, should provide a plausible counterweight to the top-ranked doubles squad of Errani and Vinci.  The bad news for an American team, however, is the clay surface and the fact that their opposition also has proved themselves greater than the sum of their parts.  Both inside the top 20 in singles as well, Errani and Vinci look set to take over from Schiavone and Pennetta as women who rise to the occasion in Fed Cup.  Home-court advantage (and the choice of surface that accompanies it) should prove decisive.

Pick:  Italy

Russia vs. Japan:  Surprised at home by Serbia in last year’s semifinals, the Russians had become accustomed to playing final after final in Fed Cup during their decade of dominance.  Even without the nuclear weapon of Maria Sharapova, the ageless Shamil Tarpischev has assembled troops much superior in quality to the female samurai invading from Japan.  All of the Russians rank higher than any of the visitors, while Maria Kirilenko, Ekaterina Makarova, and Elena Vesnina all reached the second week at the Australian Open (Makarova reaching the quarterfinals).  And world #31 Pavlyuchenkova reached the final in Brisbane when the new season started, although her production has plummeted since then.  At any rate, Tarpischev has many more options for both singles and doubles than does his counterpart Takeshi Murakami, who may lean heavily on the 42-year-old legend Kimiko Date-Krumm.  Older fans may recall Date-Krumm’s victory over Steffi Graf in Fed Cup, which came in the friendly confines of Ariake Colosseum rather than Moscow’s sterile Olympic Stadium.  Kimiko likely will need a contribution of Ayumi Morita, who just defeated her in Pattaya City last week and has claimed the position of Japanese #1.  One could see Date-Krumm or Morita swiping a rubber from Kirilenko or Makarova, neither of whom overpowers opponents.  But it’s hard to see them accomplishing more.

Pick:  Russia

Serbia vs. Slovakia:  This tie in Nis looked nice a few days ago, slated to feature two gorgeous women—and only slightly less gorgeous games—in Ana Ivanovic and Daniela Hantuchova.  Adding a bit of zest was another former #1 Jelena Jankovic, who always has represented Serbia with pride and determination.  When both of the Serbian stars withdrew from the weekend, then, the visitors suddenly shifted from slight underdogs to overwhelming favorites.  Granted, the hosts still can rely on the services of Bojana Jovanovski, who fell just short of the quarterfinals at the Australian Open in a breakthrough fortnight.  Beyond the 15th-ranked Cibulkova, Slovakia brings no woman in the top 50 to Nis.  A more dangerous talent than her current position of #58 suggests, though, Hantuchova should fancy her chances on an indoor hard court against whomever Serbian captain Dejan Vranes nominates for singles between Vesna Dolonc and Alessandra Krunic.  She has shone in Fed Cup while compiling a 27-12 singles record there, whereas even Jovanovski has played just seven singles rubbers.  Hand a slight edge to Slovakia in the doubles rubber as well because of Hantuchova’s experience in that format, where she has partnered with Magdalena Rybarikova (also here) to defeat the Serbs before.

Pick:  Slovakia

Come back on Monday for previews of the ATP and WTA tournaments next week, following the format of last week’s ATP preview.

Memories of Melbourne: Grading the Australian Open (WTA)

After the close of a fortnight at once surprising and unsurprising, we review the notable figures in the WTA field at the Australian Open.  Grading influenced by expectations, quality of competition, and other factors in addition to raw results.

Azarenka:  The first woman in over three decades to win her second major by defending her first, she consolidated her position as world #1 in the rankings and public enemy #1 in the eyes of many.  What the media and general public may refuse to acknowledge is that Azarenka showed fortitude in regrouping from the controversy swirling around her semifinal—and from a miserable start to the final—to halt an extremely talented opponent on a torrid streak with virtually everyone in the arena cheering lustily against her.  Her competitive desire rivals anyone on the Tour, and that attribute forms a key component of her success at elite tournaments notwithstanding her tendency to carry it too far at times.  Like her or not, Azarenka is here to stay with a game perfectly suited to the moderately paced hard court’s that have become the dominant surface and a determination to win at any price.  She probably will spend most of her career as a polarizing figure, but she appears to thrive on the hostility around her and relish the challenge of overcoming it.  When the dust settled, moreover, her tears at the end suggested that she may have matured during the emotionally fraught fortnight after all.  A

Li:  Endearing herself to audiences around the world, Li smiled even when she twisted her ankle for the second time in the final and slammed the back of her head into the court.  She smiled even as an Australian Open final slipped away from her for the second time after she had come within two games of her second major title.  The best player here for most of the tournament, Li trumpeted her return to relevance by defeating consecutive top-four opponents Radwanska and Sharapova in straight sets.  Not until after her first ankle injury, in fact, did she even lose a set here.  When all of the components of her game click together, any opponent other than Serena will struggle to overcome someone with no apparent weakness.  Much of the credit probably goes to coach Carlos Rodriguez for providing the discipline that she had lacked, but her ability to battle through injury after injury illustrated her inner steel.  And, unlike the equally fierce competitor across the net in the final, she mingled that steel with the grace and warmth that emerged from that smile.  A+

Sharapova:  Continuing a trend that has defined many of her performances at the Australian Open, she mowed down several overmatched opponents to march deep into the draw, only to get mowed down herself late in the second week.  We learned nothing new about Sharapova this tournament, instead receiving reminders that she can demolish or be demolished on any given day without warning.  That said, her lack of match preparation did not appear to cost her, and her loss to Li hinged much more upon the Chinese star’s excellence than her own fallibility.  Some threw excessive-celebration flags on Sharapova for her victory over an aging Venus, which unjustly obscured that transcendent performance in a nearly flawless stretch that set multiple Australian Open records for dominance.  Her post-tournament ranking of #3 feels exactly right.  B+

Serena:  As with Sharapova, we learned nothing new about Serena.  She continues to carve up the WTA like a cantaloupe when she is healthy and hungry, but she cannot overcome injuries as impressively as she once could.  One cannot doubt that she would have finished off Stephens if not for her second injury of the tournament, and it is difficult to imagine the struggling serve of Azarenka or even the streaking Li stopping her after then.  Depending on how her ankle recovers, though, Serena should regain the #1 ranking soon.  Incomplete

Stephens:  Putting aside the fact that she benefited from Serena’s injury, this tournament marked a decisive breakthrough for Stephens.  Many players have lost to an injured Serena before, and it appeared that she would when she choked away a second-set lead and later trailed by a break in the third.  Despite her competitive rawness, she managed to regroup in both instances and settle herself to record a career-defining win.  Also satisfying was her convincing victory over fellow phenom Robson, and she should take Azarenka’s dubious medical timeouts as a compliment, illustrating how worried her resilience in the second set had made the world #1.  A

Radwanska:  Now just 1-6 in major quarterfinals (0-4 here), with her only victory a three-setter over Kirilenko, she did little to refute her reputation as a player who struggles to translate her success to the places that matter most.  Radwanska entered the tournament having won consecutive titles in Auckland and Sydney, so she had not even dropped a set this year until she ran into the Li Na buzzsaw.  She had chances to win that first set and turn around the momentum in the second, but once again she could find no answer to an opponent capable of outhitting her consistently without imploding at key moments.  It’s still difficult to see Radwanska winning a major unless the draw falls just right.  B

Makarova:  As a clever wit noted on Twitter, she excels in places that end in –bourne.  Winning Eastbourne as a qualifier once, Makarova reached her second straight quarterfinal in Melbourne by upsetting world #5 Kerber.  Her defense and lefty angles created a scintillating combination to watch, perhaps honed by her doubles expertise.  Once she fell behind early against Sharapova, she let too much negativity seep into her body language, but that match seemed unwinnable anyway.  B+

Kuznetsova:  One of three Russian women to reach the quarterfinals, this two-time major champion has revived her career in impressive fashion.  Kuznetsova finally strung together a series of confidence-boosting victories at a prestigious tournament, displaying poise late in a tight third-setter against Wozniacki just when she might have crumbled in years past.  Her sparkling athleticism set her apart from many of the more programmatic women at the top of the WTA.  B+

Kerber:  Similar to her performances at the preparatory tournaments, her Melbourne result was unremarkable in either a positive or negative sense.  She fell before the quarterfinals for the third straight hard-court major since reaching the 2011 US Open semifinals, still looking tired from her busy season in 2012.  That post-tournament ranking of #6 seems inflated—until you look at the women directly behind her.  B-

WTA #7-9:  This trio won two total matches at the Australian Open, finding a variety of ways to collapse.  Last year’s quarterfinalist Errani could not hold serve against fellow clay specialist Suarez Navarro in an ominous sign for a year in which she must defend large quantities of points.  Last year’s semifinalist Kvitova could not finish off Laura Robson amid a horrific cascade of double faults and groundstrokes dispatched to places unknown.  Her confidence even more tattered than her game, the former Wimbledon champion nears a pivotal crossroads.  At least one expected home hope Stosur to shatter Aussie dreams as painfully as possible, which she accomplished by twice failing to serve out a match against Zheng before dumping a second serve into the middle of the net down match point.  F

Wozniacki:  Many, including me, thought that she would fall to Lisicki in the first round.  Let off the hook when the German self-destructed yet again, Wozniacki capitalized on her second life to win two more matches.  Then the poise that she displayed at her best late in close matches deserted her as she fell two points short of closing out Kuznetsova.  (As colleague David Kane has noted, that match posed a striking counterpoint to her earlier matches against the Russian.)  Out of the top 10 after the tournament, Wozniacki continues to stagnate without much sign of recovery.  C+

Pavlyuchenkova:  Like fellow Brisbane runner-up Dimitrov, she crashed out of the tournament in the first round.  What happens in Brisbane stays in Brisbane, or does it?  Pavlyuchenkova has much to prove after a disastrous 2012 but plenty of talent with which to prove it.  C

WTA young guns:  From Stephens and Keys to Robson and Watson to Gavrilova and Putintseva, rising stars from around the world asserted themselves in Melbourne.  The future looks bright with a variety of personalities and playing styles maturing in our midst.  A

Kvitova vs. Robson:  Hideous for the first two sets, it grew into the greatest WTA drama of the tournament not stoked by Azarenka.  The question of whether the budding teenager could oust the major champion hovered through game after game that mixed the sublime with the absurd.  It was hard to applaud, and equally hard to look away even as it careened deep into the Melbourne night.  B

Errani/Vinci vs. Williams/Williams:  Two of the greatest legends in the history of the sport faced the top doubles team, en route to their third title in the last four majors.  After three sets and over two and a half hours, the Italians survived two American attempts to serve for the match and struck a blow for the value of doubles as more than a format for singles stars to hone their skills.  This match also marked a rare occasion when David felled Goliath in a WTA dominated by the latter.  A-

Women’s final:  Seemingly everything imaginable happened in this profoundly gripping, profoundly weird climax to the tournament:  fireworks, a concussion test, 16 service breaks, and a starker good vs. evil narrative than most Hollywood movies.  As the service breaks suggested, the quality of tennis fluctuated dramatically from one point to the next with both women struggling to find their best form at the same time.  Meanwhile, the dramatic tension soared to Shakespearean levels as the WTA produced its third straight three-set major final.  A

Enjoy this tournament review?  Come back tomorrow for the ATP edition.

Quarters for Our Thoughts (II): Australian Open Women’s Draw Preview

After the mega-preview of the Australian Open men’s draw appeared yesterday, we take the same type of look at the women’s draw.

First quarter:  Like fellow defending champion Djokovic, Azarenka cruised through the first week of last year’s tournament.  Also like Djokovic, she should do so again this year against an early slate of opponents that features nobody more remarkable than Radwanska’s younger sister.  Urszula Radwanska recently lost to Wozniacki, which should tell you all that you need to know about her current form, and her sister can offer her little advice on how to solve Azarenka’s ruthless baseline attack.  The world #1 has taken the sensible position that this year’s tournament is a new opportunity for triumph rather than a chunk of territory to defend, an attitude that should help her advance deep into the draw.  While the quirky game of Roberta Vinci might bemuse her temporarily, Azarenka probably has less to fear from any opponent in her quarter than from the Australian summer heat, which has proved an Achilles heel for her before.

Among the most plausible first-round upsets in the women’s draw is Lisicki over the reeling, tenth-ranked Wozniacki.  The world #1 at this tournament last year, Wozniacki continued her 2012 slide by losing two of her first three matches in 2013, while she has failed to solve the German’s mighty serve in two of their three meetings.  Lisicki usually lacks the steadiness to string together several victories in a marquee draw away from grass, but Brisbane finalist Pavlyuchenkova might build upon her upward trend if she escapes Lisicki in the third round.  Although the seventh-seeded Errani reached the quarterfinals here last year, she fell to Pavlyuchenkova in Brisbane and might exit even before she meets the young Russian to the veteran Kuznetsova.  The most intriguing unseeded player in this section, the two-time major champion showed flashes of vintage form in Sydney and eyes an accommodating pre-quarterfinal draw.  She could battle Pavlyuchenkova for the honor of facing Azarenka, who would feel intimidated by neither Russian.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Player to watch:  Pick your ova between Pavlyuchenkova and Kuznetsova

Second quarter:  In a sense, all that you need to know about this section is that it contains Serena.  Case closed, or is it?  Conventional wisdom would say that a player of Serena’s age cannot possibly sustain the brilliance that she displayed in the second half of 2012 much longer, but she has built a reputation upon defying conventional wisdom.  An intriguing third-round rematch with Shvedova beckons just two majors after the Kazakh nearly upset her at Wimbledon, the tournament that turned around Serena’s comeback.   Mounting an inspired comeback herself last year, Shvedova has stalled a bit lately while suffering some dispiriting three-set losses.  Serena can outserve, outhit, and generally out-compete players like Kirilenko and Wickmayer with their limited range of talents.  Last year, though, Makarova delivered the shock of the Australian Open by ambushing her in the fourth round, reminding us that underdogs sometimes can jolt Serena before she settles into a tournament.

By the quarterfinals, the American usually has accumulated a formidable tide of momentum that compensates for the spiking quality of competition.  Considering the eighth-seeded Kvitova’s recent struggles, the quality may not spike so dramatically.  But Kvitova, who has lost seven of her last ten matches, may not reach that stage and may have her work cut out against Schiavone in the first round or ambitious American teen Sloane Stephens in the third round.  Stephens broke through at majors last year by reaching the second week of Roland Garros, just as British teen Laura Robson did by reaching the second week at the US Open.  An early upset of Kvitova, perhaps even by Robson in the second round, would result in an intriguing battle between these two rising stars with a berth in the second week at stake.  There, they could meet the evergreen veteran Petrova, who becomes dangerous just when one discounts her.  Kvitova’s compatriot Safarova also lurks in this area but blows too hot and cold to produce a deep run.

Semifinalist:  Serena

Player to watch:  Stephens

Third quarter:  The ultra-steady Radwanska finds herself surrounded by an array of stunning talents with a penchant for getting in their own way.  Leading the pack is the sixth-seeded Li Na, who has reached the semifinals or better twice at the Australian Open.  Although she won a home title in Shenzhen, Li played generally shaky tennis during her week in Sydney before an error-strewn loss to Radwanska that ended her 2012 momentum against the Pole.  Close behind Li in ranking and self-destructive potential is Stosur, who already has imploded twice on Australian soil this year.  The ninth seed probably deserves some forgiveness for those losses in view of her recent ankle surgery, but the fact remains that she has lost six of her last seven matches at home in an illustration of her frailty under pressure.  Stosur narrowly avoided an early date with Cirstea, her nemesis in the first round last year, and may meet Zheng Jie in the second round a week after she lost to her in Sydney.  For her part, Li must hope to reverse her loss to Cirstea at Wimbledon last year if that third-round meeting materializes.

Nearer to Radwanska lies another opponent of the same model as fellow one-time major champions Li and Stosur:  the charming and charmingly fragile Ivanovic.  Five years after her trip to the Melbourne final, she has not reached the quarterfinals there since.  The former #1 might face the other former #1 from her own country in the third round, resuming her sometimes bitter rivalry with Jankovic.  Although both Serbs accumulated success against Radwanska earlier in their careers, neither has conquered her as they have declined.  The fourth seed thus will feel confident of extending her nine-match winning streak from titles in Auckland and Sydney deep into Melbourne.  Perhaps she can follow in the footsteps of Sydney champion Azarenka last year, or in those of Sydney champion Li the year before.

Semifinalist:  Radwanska

Player to watch:  Li

Fourth quarter:  When Sharapova entered the Melbourne field without any match practice last year, she showed no signs of rust in sweeping to the final.  In the same situation, she will aim to produce the same result on a surface where the high bounce suits her playing style.  Sharapova could face Venus Williams near the end of the first week, assuming that the American survives the heat and her spells of uneven play to that point.  Away from grass, she has accumulated a far better record against the elder than the younger Williams, and one would favor her in that matchup considering the relative conditions of each career.  Either of these tall women would hold a significant advantage in power and serve over Dominika Cibulkova, the Sydney finalist who devoured three top-eight opponents before eating a double bagel in the final.  Rarely at her best in Melbourne, she faces an intriguing opener against local prodigy Ashleigh Barty but otherwise looks likely to enter the second week.

Somewhat more uncertain is the identity of this section’s other quarterfinalist, for Kerber looked only moderately convincing in Brisbane and Sydney.  A heavy hitter can outslug the German or frustrate her, a role that second-round opponent Lucia Hradecka could fill with her thunderous serve.  Principally a threat on grass, Tamira Paszek remains unpredictable from one week to the next and could meet Sydney sensation Madison Keys in a second round.  A 17-year-old with precocious poise, Keys may vie with Stephens for the brightest star in the future of American women’s tennis.  The eleventh-seeded Bartoli opens against Medina Garrigues, who played inspired tennis at the Hopman Cup, and will hope to break away from a series of unremarkable efforts in Melbourne.  While Kerber defeated Sharapova early last year, the world #2 squashed her in their other three meetings, nor has any of the other players in this section often threatened her.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Player to watch:  Venus

Final:  Serena vs. Radwanska

Champion:  Serena Williams

Excited for the start of the 2013 Australian Open?  I will run a live chat during many of the matches at newyorkobservertennis.com.  Check it out if you want to chat with me, some of my colleagues, and fellow fans while you watch the action in Melbourne.

Bouncing Back: Pavlyuchenkova and Tomic in Brisbane and Perth

At first, 2011 appeared to mark the breakthrough of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova when she reached two major quarterfinals and stood toe to toe with many of the WTA’s leading ladies.  The former junior #1 looked likely to become the latest Russian woman to rise in a sport riddled with them over the past decade, blending ferocious groundstrokes from both wings with a keen competitive instinct.  Soon afterwards arrived the apparent emergence of Australian prodigy Bernard Tomic.  The lanky, enigmatic teenager delivered his “hello, world” moment by soaring from Wimbledon qualifying all the way to the quarterfinals of the main draw, where he won a set from eventual champion Djokovic.  Two majors later, Tomic thrilled his home fans by reaching the second week of the Australian Open with electrifying five-set victories over Verdasco and Dolgopolov.

Not entirely concealed by those achievements, however, were the shortcomings in the games of both nascent stars.  While Pavlyuchenkova grappled with a serve that leaked too many double faults and untimely service breaks, Tomic struggled less with his body than with an undisciplined mind that too often drifted away from the task at hand.  For most of 2012, they not only stagnated but regressed dramatically.  The Russian struggled to string together consecutive victories and did not advance past the first week at any major, while she defeated top-30 opponents at only one tournament (Cincinnati).  Meanwhile, Tomic combined on-court with off-court embarrassments that ranged from a visibly disinterested loss at the US Open to surly altercations with media and Davis Cup team members.  A nation that values hard work and humility, Australia recoiled from the man whom they had prized so recently when he admitted his failures to commit full effort and sounded detached while doing so.

During those demoralizing seasons, then, Pavlyuchenkova and Tomic absorbed a series of bruising blows that might well have left their confidence in tatters.  But this week they began 2013 with promising performances that hinted at a revival.

On opposite sides of the Australian continent, the two faltering phenoms delivered victories over players who would have dismissed them with ease last year.  At the Premier tournament in Brisbane, Pavlyuchenkova recorded consecutive victories over top-eight opponents for the first time in her career, thus improving even upon her success in 2011.  Neither Kvitova nor Kerber played convincing tennis for long stretches in those matches, to be sure, but journeywomen of the WTA had not needed to play even average tennis to unravel her during her slump.  In those two straight-sets victories, a fitter and generally calmer Pavlyuchenkova found the courage to win crucial points late in sets.  The serve that had betrayed her so relentlessly over the past year became an occasional weapon and only a rare liability.  Rallying from a dismal first set in a semifinal against lucky loser Lesia Tsurenko, the Russian also showed the maturity to reverse the momentum of a match while shouldering the pressure of a heavy favorite.  In view of the field’s overall quality, Brisbane marked arguably her most significant final to date.

Thousands of miles to the west in Perth, Tomic toppled three consecutive top-25 opponents at the Hopman Cup.  The experience of playing before the fans whom he had alienated over the preceding months seemed to energize rather than weigh upon him.  Crucial to his week was his first match against Tommy Haas, the author of a remarkable resurgence in 2012.  Having let a one-set lead slip away, the Aussie quickly dropped the second set and fell behind by an early break in the third, at which point familiar chatter about “Tomic the Tank Engine” reverberated around Twitter.  Many onlookers, including me, expected him to fade meekly and lose the set, perhaps by a double break.  To the contrary, Tomic stayed within range until Haas served for the match, when edgy play from the German veteran allowed the youngster to sweep the last four games.  Galvanized by this comeback, he then notched straight-sets victories over Italian grinder Andreas Seppi, who had compiled the best season of his career last year, and world #1 Djokovic.  Granted, the Serb seemed a bit out of tune in that match, and exhibition tournaments rarely elicit A-list tennis from A-list names.  As in the case of Pavlyuchenkova in Brisbane, however, Tomic deserved credit for capitalizing on an opportunity that would have eluded him last season.  And the speed with which his compatriots embraced him again illustrated how easily he can reverse the tide of public opinion that had flowed against him.

A tennis season  is a marathon, not a sprint, and one should beware of placing too much emphasis on a single strong week.  All the same, plenty of draws would become more intriguing if Pavlyuchenkova and Tomic rediscovered the talents that deserted them in 2012, and they took important steps in that direction during the first week of 2013.

Quotable quotes from the Citi Open: Haas, Fish, Stephens, Blake

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Citi Open tournament this week is full of opinionated and versatile players with the press conferences producing some memorable moments.

Check out some of the intriguing, honest and fun quotes from players Mardy Fish, James Blake, Sloane Stephens, Coco Vandeweghe, Tommy Haas and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova as they talk about the Olympics, Twitter, trends in men’s tennis, heat exhaustion, and even “revenge matches” for one of the players.

Mardy Fish

“I think it speaks to the physicality of the game nowadays. It takes guys longer to develop. [The ATP Tour] is much more physical, much more mental. You just have to be mature in both areas to succeed at a high level. You just can’t come out of the blue anymore. You just don’t anymore see guys 21-years-old roll through and make the quarterfinals [of Grand Slams]. I think it just speaks to the physicality of the game now. And there are a lot of 30-years-old and older guys that are playing well. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, I think it’s the physical side of it.”
Mardy Fish on the trend of older players doing well on the ATP Tour

“I feel 100 percent physically and structurally. The most important thing is getting my confidence back. Everyone knows the mind can play tricks on you. You can convince yourself of things. When you’re out there playing, you can convince yourself that you’re not feeling well. When I don’t feel 100 percent, because my confidence isn’t all the way back, my mind can go to bad places. But everything is fine [with my heart]. It’s all behind me. The [doctors] say it won’t happen again. I stay away from everything that can cause it.”
Mardy Fish on his health after troubles with his heart earlier in the year

James Blake

“As my knee is starting to feel better, my shoulder is feeling better, everything is feeling better … I don’t feel like I am a player that someone in the top 20 is looking at as an easy draw just because I am ranked outside of the top 100. I know I have been top 10 in the world before. So I am not scared of any of the top guys, I’m not feeling like I walk onto the court and I have already lost.”
– James Blake on his confidence against the top players even though he is outside of the top 100

Sloane Stephens

“The WTA tournament is a lower tier tournament than the men. It’s the women coming into the men’s territory. This has been their tournament for a really long time. We’re kind of bombarding them. I think it’s fine that we play on the outside court. All in all, it’s all the same, and I don’t think any of the girls are disappointed about not being on the stadium.”
– Sloane Stephens on whether it was a diss to the women to not get to play on stadium court until the quarterfinals

“I don’t tweet sometimes for a while, but I love Twitter. I love reading what people have to say. That’s where I find all my gossip!”
– Sloane Stephens on how she has taken to being active on Twitter

“I boycotted the Olympics! I don’t like to watch it anymore because I see the results all on Twitter and Facebook. You already know what happens way before it happens. Now, I can’t go home and watch it and be excited because I know who won… You want to see Michael Phelps win live!”
– Sloane Stephens on whether she has been watching the Olympics

Tommy Haas

“We get along quite well off the court. I’m sure we’ll spend some time after our careers together, and it’s important for me to say to him at least that I’ve gotten him in the later years, which is huge.
– Tommy Haas on beating Roger Federer to win the Halle title this year

“When I was watching the Olympics, I am surprised I do not see myself playing. The German Olympics committee did not nominate me this year, which I think was a big mistake in my eyes. I am happy to be able to play tennis while the Olympic are going on and not sitting at home.”
– Tommy Haas on not playing in the Olympics

Coco Vandeweghe

“I’m disappointed that I’m not competing in the Olympics. That’s a dream of mine to compete and win a medal. It’s almost more of a goal for me than to win a Grand Slam just because my mom was in the Olympics. The Olympics were on TV before tennis was on TV in my home.”
– Coco Vandeweghe on not playing in the Olympics

“I took that first match in Stanford against [Melinda] Czink, and it was a little bit of a ‘revenge’ match for me because she beat me in Charleston earlier in the year. I actually had a couple of ‘revenge’ matches in that tournament where I wanted to beat each girl because they have beaten me before.”
– Coco Vandeweghe on her mentality during her Stanford finals run

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

“I was suffering from the first game versus Vania. It was ridiculously hot out there. I don’t know, seriously, how people live here! I think they should consider changing the date of the tournament or just do night sessions. I’ve played in Australia for six years, and I know what is hot and that it’s the same for everyone. But the heat just hit me today.”
– Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on calling the doctor due to heat exhaustion during her semifinal match versus Vania King (as a note, it reached 95°F today with very high humidity)

The top 5: The last 5 days in tennis at Roland Garros

By Aimee Schroeder (www.schroeds.wordpress.com | @Schroeds2)

By now we are almost halfway through the second week of tennis at Roland Garros, and just a few days away from crowning this year’s winners. While the newsworthy stories over the first few days of a slam, usually consists of the upsets, the fluff – not just who’s wearing what – but also the literal fluff at this year’s French Open, in the form of the controversial tennis balls. By the start of the second weekend, things have settled down somewhat and it’s perhaps easier to gauge who the real title contenders are, and the opportunity for a few lesser known players to win over fans by making a good run into the second week at a grand slam arises.

Several happenings of the last few days have been noteworthy; not least of them Rafael Nadal’s perceived lack of form. The top seed and defending champion has surprised with his sometimes lacklustre play and has certainly been questioned about it nonstop since his 5-set first round encounter against American server, John Isner. The progress of several French players into the second week of the draw has drawn plenty of attention too. Marion Bartoli, a former Wimbledon finalist has outdone all the men from her country by reaching the semi-finals. Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon both however had good runs at the tournament too. In addition Swiss lefty, Patty Schnyder, announced her retirement from the sport. While these were interesting events to transpire, they don’t quite make the top 5 of the last 5 days of tennis.

The rise of several young women’s players in the absence of the more experienced one’s in the second week of a grand slam ranks number five on the list. Andrea Petkovic, the biggest personality to hit the tour in ages along with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Victoria Azarenka are all top 20 players who have made great strides towards being more consistent on court at the 2011 French Open, resulting in each of theirs best showing at a grand slam being equalled or improved. Particularly Azarenka seems to have mastered the art of keeping her composure and has a great opportunity to go even deeper into the tournament. She and the other two ladies mentioned are sure to do well at Wimbledon and the US Open too, with their modern hard-hitting styles and excellent double fisted backhands.

Ranking number four on the list is the exodus of top seeded women’s players from the draw over the last 5 days. Starting with 4-time major winner, Kim Clijsters and continuing on with the rest of the top 3 players, Caroline Wozniacki and Vera Zvonareva, and also including Sam Stosur, defending finalist here at the French Open, a whole host of top ranked players lost significantly earlier in the tournament than they were seeded to.

Unfortunately the criticism levelled at them is immensely high, and from a variety of sources including former players. World number 1, Wozniacki, got a roasting from the press for not living up to her seeding. The fact that the WTA’s rankings are flawed is frequently mentioned, along with the idea that the women’s game lacks real depth. Whereas in the past, other players have been critical of the then number 1’s for not having a grand slam title to their name (Serena Williams stating that everyone knows who the real number one is – implying her, while non grand slam winner, Dinara Safina had the official ranking) it was a breath of fresh air to learn of a sense of camaraderie on the women’s tour – through Azarenka’s fervent defence of Wozniacki and her early exit from the French Open.

There have been several epic five set matches in the men’s draw which makes it on this list at number three. Most recent was the Viktor Troicki vs Andy Murray match, in which Murray came back to win from a 2-set deficit. The Albert Montanes – Fabio Fagnini match which was eventually won by a so badly injured Fagnini that he could not continue on in the tournament, Allejandro Falla’s eventual loss to the Argentine Juan Ignacio Chela, and Gael Monfils crowd inspiring win over the clay courter, David Ferrer, were just a few of the long encounters that had viewers on the edges of their seats. Matches like these add to the drama, and highlight the value of having five set matches in grand slams. The better player wins far more often than not, and the intense physical battles are a great advertisement for the athleticism, training and fitness which professional tennis requires.

Close to the top of the list at number two is manner in which Novak Djokovic, yet to lose a match this year, and Roger Federer, for a change playing with no pressure from the media to win, have managed to progress through the draw. Both have been in excellent form, spending few moments longer than they have to out on court. Djokovic particularly is in the most amazing form he is ever likely to be, while Federer is the only player in the draw who hasn’t dropped a single set. Their impending semi-final match is sure to a great display from two great ball strikers.

At number one is the mental strength and sheer will to win on display from two ladies who could still meet in the finals of the French Open 2011. Both Maria Sharapova and defending champion, Francesca Schiavone, have done far better than they probably ought to at this tournament. Sharapova, who a few years ago likened her movement on clay to being “like a cow on ice”, has managed to go deep into the second week at the clay court major, despite the obvious deficits in her game. Schiavone, while playing a beautiful brand of tennis – her backhand especially is a shot at which to wonder – has definitely had an unconventional career trajectory. Going deep in grand slam should probably have started happening far earlier in her career, or not all.

Despite both of them having very tight matches, which they seemingly just squeaked through, both still remain in the draw, and are considered title contenders. Although the both of them do have plenty of great shots in their respective repertoires, it is their fighter, never-say-die attitudes which tops this list. Neither Sharapova, nor Schiavone knows how to give up, and a match against them is truly never won until the umpire has called the score to be game, set and match.

Victoria Azarenka holds momentum at Mutua Madrid Open

Julia Goerges is a name that has surprised many in the last couple of weeks. She won the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart by defeating Danish number one Caroline Wozniacki. And then she played Madrid and send Caroline Wozniacki packing again. The media was quick to tout her as the Giant Killer. But let’s see what she does versus Victoria Azarenka in the semis.

In her match versus Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Goerges showed her good form once again with a two set win 6-4, 6-2.  The two were pretty much equal in the first set but Goerges was the better player during the keymoments of the match. Goerges survived five breakpoints and needed only three to take the first set. The second set was a breeze for Goerges as Pavlyuchenkova posed no threat at all.

Goerges will now meet Victoria Azarenka.

Azarenka continues to hold momentum after winning the Sony Ericsson Open and the clay tournament in Marbella. However she lost to , surprise surprise, Julia Goerges in Stuttgart.

Azarenka played Lucie Safarova for a spot in the semis.  While Azarenka breezed to the quarterfinals with an easy win over Arantxa Parra Santonja,  Safarova proved to be a tougher opponent.  Azarenka won the first set with 6-3 but lost the second with 3-6 only to take her game up a notch and taking the third and final set 6-2.  End score 6-3, 3-6, 6-2.

Other semifinalists are Chinese  Ni La who defeated American Bethanie Mattek-Sands 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 and Petra Kvitova who ended Dominika Cibulkova’s strong run in three sets 3-6, 6-3, 5-7.

Photos by Ralf Reinecke!

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